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Mark Laird

Oral History Phone Interview with Mark Laird, undertaken by Veronica Koven-Matasy on August 30, 2010. At Dumbarton Oaks, Mark Laird was a Fellow and Summer Fellow (1988–1989), a Fellow (1994–1995), and since 2008, a Senior Fellow of Garden and Landscape Studies.

VKM: Hello, my name is Veronica Koven-Matasy. It is August 30, 2010, and I am at the Main House of Dumbarton Oaks to conduct a phone interview with Professor Mark Laird about his time at Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. According to our records, you first held a fellowship in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 1988, is that correct?

ML: That is correct, indeed.

VKM: So how did you first come to be involved with Dumbarton Oaks?

ML: Well, obviously I went through the usual course of applying for the fellowship, and how did I think of doing that? Well, I suppose that it was already well known in the U.K. that Dumbarton Oaks was unique, I think, in offering a residential Fellowship specifically in the area of what we called just Garden History back then. And so I took my chances, and I suppose the one thing that had made me more alert to the possibility was that I'd met with John Dixon Hunt back in about 1982 – I guess it was, when I was thinking about postgraduate study, and although I didn't end up doing a Ph.D. with him, I was in touch with him and had written for his Journal of Garden History. And it so happened that he had just taken up the new appointment of Director of Garden and Landscape Studies, and so that particular conjunction was fortunate, and I benefited greatly from it.

VKM: What were your initial impressions of Dumbarton Oaks?

ML: Well, you can imagine, coming from London in early September, just about as the autumn was beginning to be on the horizon, and arriving in Washington, D.C. and Georgetown and hearing the birds singing, I was overwhelmed by the sense of Southernness, of the opulence and graciousness of the institution and its gardens. And then, it was very, very impressive; probably less impressive was the apartment, which had been allocated to me and my prospective wife, because I was just about to get married. And although we had actually a very, very happy year there, and it became our little home, it was not exactly what I'd pictured, and there was something of a difference between the graciousness of the institution and the less than gracious nature of the apartment – as I say, we came to make it home and so on. By contrast, when we came back for the second Fellowship, La Quercia had just been purchased, it was the first year, and that was an absolutely lovely place to live and I think actually met the expectations that I would have had, so I have to congratulate Dumbarton Oaks on making that acquisition, which I think was a very good one.

VKM: I think they're remodeling it soon because now it is considered no longer sufficient to be acceptable –

ML: Well, with all these things, obviously, it's all relative, and there are updates and technological improvements and so on, and I guess that has been experienced at the institution over the years that I've known it, with obviously the library being one of the major changes to have occurred – to bring that to an appropriate level.

VKM: So, were there any particularly memorable projects that you worked on?

ML: Yes, certainly. I could actually just add one point on the impression of the institution, and that is that at that stage you still felt, I think, a connection to the Blisses and the way they had left this, it was not just an institution, but you felt the sense that this was their home, and in particular the Rare Books Library, where I spent a lot of my time that third fellowship, was very much as I imagine it had been left by Mrs. Bliss. So, it wasn't just a library of rare books, but it was a very gorgeous room with an exquisite collection of paintings, furnishings, and the desk where I sat alone was just a wonderful piece of furniture, and of course, as I said, things have to change, and it was appropriate that, first of all, the library system was improved, there was greater security brought in, which was certainly appropriate, but at that particular point it was still possible to feel the connection to the original place, of the home. And then you had asked me about projects. Probably the most notable was that John Dixon Hunt was organizing the symposium for the Spring of 1989 to be a survey of the state of Garden and Landscape Studies, and of course that was a very exciting moment – even had a sense of a potential as the discipline was changing from that which had been dominated under the tenureship of Betty MacDougall – been dominated more by art historical studies. And here we were having a gathering of people who were bringing archaeological methods, and who were bringing also methods derived from sociology and anthropology, Michel Conan amongst them. So that when I looked at the list of contributors – and I was lucky enough to be one – I see not merely a number of senior figures like Wilhelmina Jashemski or Bill Kelso, but also these rising stars who would have an enormous influence on the discipline. Tom Williamson is there, Therese O'Malley, Jim Wescoat, Stephen Daniels, Robin Osborne, and Geza Hajos – on a personal note – became a very close colleague of mine and I did much work for him in Vienna in subsequent years. So, that was probably the most significant of the projects I became involved in, but adjunct to that was getting to know Therese O'Malley at CASVA at the National Gallery, and she was beginning work on what would emerge as her major work, her magnum opus, as it were, which has only just been published this past year, and she invited me to be an adviser on that, and it was through her that I came to travel down to Charleston for a colloquium in March of 1989, and at the end of the interview I can tell you a story which comes of that – out of that, which is more on the personal side.

VKM: You mentioned Wilhelmina Jashemski was at this, I guess, working on this project, did you get to meet her?

ML: Well, yes in the sense that she was obviously one of the speakers, I couldn't say I got to know her personally very well, but I became aware of her work in a way that would not have been true prior to her symposium. And, indeed, I still use her significant work on Pompeii when I teach at Harvard. It was also, of course, during this year that one of the Fellows was Nicholas Purcell from St. John's College, Oxford, who had worked with Jashemski, and he's remained a lifelong friend and colleague. So I think on the personal level, Dumbarton Oaks is very, very significant in setting up for me various connections, networks. It wasn't just that it provided that wonderful space and environment to do my own work in.

VKM: At some points in the past, there's been tension between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks over control of some issues, but very often financial ones. Did you ever get a sense of the prevailing feeling toward Harvard while you were there?

ML: I don't think so because, of course, I was a Fellow not an employee. And although it happened that subsequently I became a member of the faculty at Harvard at the Graduate School of Design – and I'm now aware of the relationship or not between the two institutions – at the time as a Fellow I don't think that impinged at all. It really was not something over which I had any awareness or felt any sense of tension or controversy. Of course, now that John Beardsley – who is my colleague from the Graduate School of Design – is Director of Garden and Landscape Studies the opportunity for a closer liaison between the two institutions is positive.

VKM: Do you think they're taking advantage of that?

ML: I think, indeed. I mean, I've taken upon some of it in the role of a Senior Fellow where, through Jan and through John, it's been possible, for instance, to invite one of the Fellows of a given year to come up and speak to my students. My colleague Gary Hilderbrand was running a studio which was about the Mall landscape proposals and that was a project organized in conjunction with the University of Virginia Landscape and Architecture, and John was able to have them for a very interesting workshop, so I think those opportunities are there and it's the first step towards a closer relationship, which seems to me quite proper.

VKM: You mentioned that you got to know a lot of people and did some networking while you were at Dumbarton Oaks. Do you think that that was intentionally encouraged by the institution or just something that happened, you had all those scholars here –?

ML: Well, obviously, some of it was adventitious, it depended who was there and whom you happened to run across. What was true was that when you sat down to lunch in the Fellows Building at the time you mixed amongst other scholars from the other disciplines, and so whether it was just a level of private socialization, you got to know the people who were working in Byzantine Studies and Pre-Columbian Studies. And from that first fellowship we still have a very close friend, Smiljka Gabelic, who was a Fellow in Byzantine Studies, so that was extremely enriching and it was encouraged by the institution and by the Director through the fact that you attended all the presentations by all the Fellows, so you got to know their work and you got to know them individually.

VKM: You think that while you were there that was a successful attempt? We'd had, you know, varying reports on the interaction between departments at different points in time.

ML: Well, yes, I think it does depend on the moment because certainly John Beardsley last year was very successful in bringing the three disciplines together through the artistic installation that you organized which required the cooperation of the Byzantine Studies and Pre-Columbian Studies. Certainly at the institutional level that must have helped promote better mixing, better harmony. Whether that worked amongst the level of the Fellows, that I couldn't comment on, but on both occasions, I would say we got to know informally if not formally the other Fellows in the other disciplines, and the fact that we were living in the same building, whether it was Sherry Hall up Wisconsin the first time, or at La Quercia the second time, that obviously encouraged getting together. And then, for instance, in the case of the second time, there was the birth of a child.

VKM: Her mother is living at the Guest House with me, actually.

ML: Is that right?

VKM: Yeah, yeah.

ML: Well, yeah, that's right – so that, obviously – those things – that the Fellows brought family members with them, whether it was a spouse or children, all of those, I think, encouraged a sense that you were not just at an institution but that this had a sort of a familial aspect which was a continuation of the original nature of Dumbarton Oaks as a family home, and I would encourage further efforts to perpetuate that.

VKM: While you were here, did you ever attend the concerts by the Friends of Music Program?

ML: Yes, I think we went to every single one, and again that was something that made life feel very good, and it made it feel very intimate, and it made it very hard leaving Dumbarton Oaks. In fact, when we were down this past May for the symposium and we met with some of the Fellows of this past year, we could feel from them a certain pain on leaving the place after a year and so all those things, I think, encouraged a sense of a certain intimacy. But what I can say is that I didn't attend, on either occasion, the symposia organized by Byzantine Studies or Pre-Columbian Studies, but I made completely an exception to the rule.

VKM: While you were here, you said you were using the Rare Book Room a lot. I just don't know, was that the same as the Garden Library at the time or –?

ML: Well, the Rare Book Room – I don't know, back in, I guess, only eighteen months ago it still is the same room as it was where Linda sits. I assume she still has a desk in there. That was where I spent probably ninety percent of the first Fellowship. The second time round, because I was not using those resources so much and I was actually working on finishing the manuscript of my book, I was more confined to my office – in fact was more like a hermit who rarely came out. Whereas on the first occasion I can recall, for instance, sitting in the Garden Library. And it I think Christopher Hogwood from Britain – the conductor of the early music ensemble – he was there researching a manuscript. And the sense of it as an extraordinary place with extraordinary collections was that much more evident. I would imagine now that the library has moved to a separate building, a new building, that feeling of being closely tied to the original collections of the Blisses that probably something has got lost there.

VKM: Were there any resources that you remember being useful or –?

ML: Well, resources within D.O. or outside?

VKM: Well, either, I guess, but mainly within D.O., the other collections or the, I don't know what they have in the way of Garden Museum, but –

ML: Well, the garden itself offers a resource, which is, at a subliminal level as well as a place to consider the discipline. Obviously having lived through a full season from the fall through to the summer the first time, using the swimming pool amongst other things, and so on, it was an extraordinarily invigorating environment in which to work. That you could spend four hours in the library then you would go out and you would visit with the birds, particularly during the second Fellowship, there were several feral cats that were living in the gardens that Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn eventually adopted and took with him back to his home in Hanover, but there are all kinds of little interactions there at the biological level that for me were extremely enriching. But in terms of other resources, I would say those were really outside Dumbarton Oaks and notable would be of course CASVA and the opportunity to use their library and have discussions with Therese O'Malley and her colleagues or go to presentations there.

VKM: Have you been back to use the new library since they built it?

ML: I haven't actually used it in the sense of study there. On my appointment as Senior Fellow, I was given a very, very thorough tour of it and I was extremely impressed by the modernity, by the technological sophistication of it. It seems terrific, and I think in the circumstances, given that it required a very considerable intervention you know to a site, which has a heritage status, the eventual outcome was really quite brilliantly done. The building fits very well in its landscape and I know from my colleagues that they look out into the woods and hear the birds, so that sort of connection to the landscape outside your window is still maintained, but I haven't had the benefit of being able to use it as a study place.

VKM: While you've been at Dumbarton Oaks there have been several different Directors of Studies in Garden and Landscape, John Dixon Hunt, Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, and John Beardsley. Have you have the chance to have much interaction with any of them?

ML: Well obviously with – if I start back to front – John Beardsley, of course, I know very well because he is my colleague at the Graduate School of Design. And I was very honored to be invited to be a Senior Fellow during the first year that he was in tenure. So, I am very much aware of the innovative way that he is steering Garden and Landscape Studies. I think he and Jan have brought a very good atmosphere to the institution. Beyond that obviously, I don't know it in the same way being a Fellow. The first time round – John Dixon Hunt – I've already conveyed something of the excitement of what he was bringing which was paralleled by Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, who was bringing a new approach through his studies in ideology and with a sociological political method. The volumes that have come out of his time, Nature and Ideology in particular, have stood the test of time, and I use it repeatedly, and both of them have become very close colleagues. John Dixon Hunt ended up publishing my book when I finally got it out after the second fellowship. And Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn – I've recently been working with him on a new publication due out this year. In between whiles, of course I kept contact through Michel Conan, particularly in two respects. One was that he invited me to give a lecture after my book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden came out – so this would be about 2000–2001 – and as a result of that I was able to incorporate that lecture material into the volume that he published on Bourgeois and Aristocratic Cultural Encounters. Second he invited me to review the volume on horticulture and botany which I think is a really splendid volume, so each in turn I has brought a very, very distinctive approach to the discipline, extending the scope of it, not merely bringing in allied disciplines, but also expanding the range of studies across the globe so that the applications now for the coming year for example have transformed what would have been the more limited range applications back in 1988–89.

VKM: Both 1988 and 2008 were transition years between Directors of Study. At the time was that changeover prominent, or did they just go smoothly one to the other?

ML: Well, obviously it's hard to comment because although I had known the work of Betty MacDougall and so on, and as I said, I knew the work that Michel Conan was doing – my knowledge of the institution was very much the imprint that both Hunt and John Beardsley have put on their tenure, so I couldn't really talk about transitions. I don't think I have enough knowledge of that piece to have a relevant comment.

VKM: So, you have been a member of the Board of Senior Fellows in Garden and Landscape Studies for two years now – what do you consider to be the major responsibilities of the board?

ML: Well, obviously, literally there are certain responsibilities to help in the selection of the applicants for fellowships each year, providing support to the Director on the question of the topics of the symposium, and I would say at a broader level there is a responsibility which I feel very personally, which is to ensure the sort of collective memory of the institution the way it was run, the way it has changed. Having had the experience of being a Fellow twice over and having maintained very close contacts through the Conan years, there's much that I feel that I can contribute at the level of knowing the nature of the transformations of the discipline, much about the personnel at Dumbarton Oaks, the gardens themselves, and many of the experts. There are things that could be forgotten – little aspects which are in fact of great significance.

VKM: Do they make an effort to have people who have been Fellows before on the board of Senior Fellows, do you know?

ML: Well, in fact, that inevitably happens, and I would encourage it because I think it's precisely that sense of continuity and collective memory that is important amongst the current Senior Fellows in Garden and Landscape Studies. I may be the only one who certainly was a Fellow twice, and possibly I may be the only one who has been a Fellow, so that appears as rather important.

VKM: Have you had any involvement in the Contemporary Landscape Design Collection?

ML: No, I can answer that quite simply.

VKM: Do you know if it's still going on, because the references to it sort of went away after a while in the files?

ML: I don't know about that. One has to assume that John would have enormous interest in it because of the particular interests of his own, but it's not something I can comment on.

VKM: What was your reaction to the reinstatement of the Summer Garden Internships?

ML: Well, I didn't know. One aspect – when we're talking about stuff like collective memory – one aspect I didn't know a lot about – I think I was speaking to my colleague at the Graduate School of Design, Michael Van Valkenburgh, who possibly was one of the last of the old interns – and all I can say is that it seems to me a very good initiative. It certainly is providing an opportunity for research on the gardens as well as an opportunity for eight young students, eight young about-to-be-practitioners to gain a sense of history and of methodology. So, that seems to me actually entirely in keeping with what I would understand to be the legacy of Mrs. Bliss, that she left the gardens, the collections, and a sense of an emerging field, those things need to be held together, I think, effectively. And there could be a danger that without the internships of having the garden really as a separate entity. I personally have had good contact with Gail over the two seasons that I've been a Senior Fellow, and I think she's also demonstrating a great interest in the research aspect of the garden because it seems to me it parallels the collections in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian disciplines. The gardens should not be forgotten as a collection in its own way.

VKM: When the board was discussing bringing it back, did they mention why the program had been allowed to lapse in the first place?

ML: Nope, I don't recall hearing – as I say, that's one aspect of this history I am not particularly versed in, but it struck me as a very positive initiative and so I guess I didn't probe further.

VKM: I guess continuing on that theme a little bit. In some of the other interviews, people have discussed the division in Garden and Landscape Studies between academics and practitioners as a problem in the field in general and at Dumbarton Oaks in particular. What are you thoughts on how Dumbarton Oaks has addressed that divide?

ML: Well, I can answer that at a personal level, which is that because I'm both a practitioner and an academic I don't see a problem of a divide there. It would actually seem to me wise to ensure that amongst the Senior Fellows and indeed amongst the Fellows that an effort is made to ensure the representation of those who are both academics and professionals or practitioners is sustained because I believe that goes back to the original vision of Mrs. Bliss, who saw it as both a study center and as a place which is emblematic of the best of design, of practice, of horticulture. And because of the particular interests I have in horticultural history alongside Garden and Landscape Studies, I'm always keen when I see an application come in from somebody who is not merely a practitioner but somebody who understands processes of landscape from a horticultural or an organic point of view – that sort of point of view – that application is given careful consideration for those reasons.

VKM: Are there any other systemic issues in this field that you would consider significant?

ML: I think that's probably too broad a question to be able to answer, when one's looking at the makeup of Senior Fellows, and I have to say that the present makeup of our group seems to me very extremely well considered. It is important that practitioners are represented, also that the different traditions across the world are represented, that we have somebody representing Asia, broadly – that's been a tradition – that those aspects are kept in balance.

VKM: What do you think have been some of the major changes in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks since you first came here?

ML: Well, I guess it would build on that point which has to do with geographical spread, at the time that I applied for the first Fellowship, my guess would be that the applications were coming mainly from Europe and from North America and the tradition of, for instance, looking at Renaissance studies and ancient Rome, antiquity, were very much grounded in the European world. Whereas now the applications are coming in from China, from Japan, from Australia, from India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Turkey, and it's made the applications that much more competitive to the point where it is often a source of great regret that we are not able to offer more fellowships because the caliber of the applicants is really quite superb. Of course, beyond that, it's the expansion of the discipline, so that the influences of sociology and anthropology, in particular through Michel Conan, have dramatically changed the direction and complexion of Landscape Studies.

VKM: During your time at Dumbarton Oaks, have there been any important collaborations that you're aware of with other institutions in Garden and Landscape Studies?

ML: That's hard to answer. Obviously, I personally have had collaborations, which have come about through Dumbarton Oaks. I'd already mentioned Therese O'Malley of CASVA and her keywords project, but I could equally mention Amy Meyers who was a Fellow just a couple of years before me, whom I got to know through Dumbarton Oaks, and the collaborations I have done with her – first of all at the Huntington and now at Yale at the British Art Center, most recently on an exhibition there about Mrs. Delany – these are some of the personal collaborations that have come out of that network.

VKM: Does the program itself seek out collaborative projects with – I don't know – with CASVA or with –?

ML: Well, I think Michel Conan, I think, was incredibly resourceful in terms of working with the Smithsonian, with working with institutions in Europe. I think one of them was done with the Huntington. Some of that was probably rising out of the imperative of the redesign of the library and so on, and the difficulty of holding a colloquium at Dumbarton Oaks. But I think that's very important, to be looking for those opportunities because in this sense Dumbarton Oaks still holds a unique position world-wide in terms of a center of excellence in Garden and Landscape Studies – there's really nowhere to compare with it, but there are many other great institutions that offer the opportunity for collaboration, including obviously those at Harvard. So that when I think about if the place as an institution within the discipline, I think of the fact that in the U.K. the efforts to get garden and landscape studies set up for research – and whether it was at the University of York or the Architectural Association – those efforts led to very, very good training programs while they lasted. They no longer exist, but they never became centers for studies, offering fellowships – so then that's why Dumbarton Oaks continues to get applications from high caliber people from around the world.

VKM: Do you have any memories about Dumbarton Oaks that you'd like to share?

ML: Well, I mean, obviously, for me and my wife at a personal level, it's the first place that we lived at as a newly married couple, so it was a honeymoon here and it means that we come back to it with particular resonance for us. But I could tell you the story, which came out of the connection through Therese O'Malley and the conference that was organized at Charleston, South Carolina in March of 1989. She invited me to attend that and indeed to be the keynote speaker, and as a result of that we thought, well, here's an opportunity to explore the South and to go as far as Savannah, Georgia. And when we realized we would be there for a couple of days, I contacted a friend of mine who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when I was an undergraduate, Matt Schaffer, and I said, “Matt, can you put us in touch with someone who knows about the gardens of Savannah?” And he said, “Well, our realtor would be the person to start with.” And through the realtor we got an invitation to visit a woman, Louisa Farrand Wood, who turned out to be the niece of Beatrix Farrand, and when we arrived at her house, on the wall right opposite the door was a portrait of Beatrix Farrand. And I said to her, Louisa Farrand Wood, who by then was just over eighty, I said, “Well, that's extraordinary, I've never seen this before.” And she said, “Well I'm just trying to decide what to do about it.” And she said, “Well I could either give it to those people out in California who have the Farrand Papers, or I was thinking about Dumbarton Oaks.” And so inevitably when I came back to Dumbarton Oaks I spoke to John Dixon Hunt, and I said, “Well it might not be a bad idea to invite Louisa Farrand Wood up to Dumbarton Oaks.” And as result of that, the portrait, which is in a beautiful oval frame, came to Dumbarton Oaks, and in fact, I was asking Gail about it, because I'd not see it hanging where it used to hang in the Garden Library entrance hall. So that was one thing, but there was a second thing that came from that particular visit southward. Louisa gave us a copy of her book and also a cutting of a honeysuckle, which is the yellow form of the American honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. And I brought it back to Don Smith, the gardener, and at first he said, “Well, we don't need another honeysuckle,” but when I explained the connection he said, “Yeah, we'll find a place.” And that and its sister plants still are in the garden, they're in the terrace below the rose garden, I always forget what it's called, the Fountain Terrace just on the way through to the Arbor Terrace, either side of the gate there. And so that and the interview which I did for Don, with Don Smith, commissioned by John Dixon Hunt, are actually quite important elements in the history of the garden and the connection to Mrs. Bliss, Beatrix Farrand, the making of the garden, and so on. That tape of the interview which I conducted with Don Smith, I understand with Gail is from her, and that probably promptly should go into the Archives.

VKM: Yeah, definitely, I will tell James to ask her about that.

ML: Yeah, and you can ask also about the painting, because, as I say, when I was last there I didn't see it anywhere.

VKM: I will. Actually, can I ask about the story about Joachim and the cats? He brought them back to Germany with them?

ML: Yes, that's right. One is still alive, the other no longer, unfortunately. And when we saw him this past May he had some very nice photographs of the one that's surviving, I forgot the name. I have it all in my computer somewhere. But we had a great interest in feral cats, which was actually reinforced when we returned to Toronto after the second fellowship. We came back to find that the woman who had been living in our apartment in Toronto had been feeding cats on the street, and that we suddenly had outside our house the responsibility to look after these semi-wild cats. We've been feeding them ever since, so you could say that comes out of the Dumbarton Oaks story.

VKM: Is there anything else that I've left out that you would like to add?

ML: I don't think so, and obviously as far as that story goes, you could ask both – Linda knows a lot about the story of the feral cats, and the man himself could obviously fill you in.

VKM: All right, thank you very much.

ML: You're very welcome, and I will send two copies of the signed form to James by tomorrow.

VKM: Okay, thanks I will tell him to look out for that.